Why did Sheikh Abdullah insist on Autonomy ?

via Dr. Vijaya Rajiva published on August 24, 2010

This is one of the perplexing questions for Bharat. At the time of the accession of Kashmir to India on Oct.26,1947, following the invasions from the northwest of Tribesmen (and supported by Pakistan),  Maharajah Hari Singh, a reactionary Hindu ruler had hoped to stay in power after the accession. Unlike other princes and Rajas of the 562 states that acceded to the Indian Union without any conditions,Hari Singh hoped to keep a special status for Kashmir, with his feudal rule.

Sheikh Abdullah, on the other hand, was an admirer of the Indian constitution which he praised as a model of secular democracy. He himself was something of a socialist and changed landholding patterns in Kashmir when he became the Prime Minister (later Chief Minister) and distributed land to the tiller. His party, the National Conference, and the Kashmir Constituent Assembly voted unanimously for Kashmir to remain an integral part of India. His policies (at least on paper) were to guarantee equal rights to all citizens regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, etc. He was an out and out secularist, or so it seemed.

On the face of it, clearly this was a program and an individual which  signified a democracy and was different from the previous regime’s feudal system. He had also opposed Jinnah’s attempts to woo Kashmir to join Pakistan. He rejected azadi as impractical. A stand alone Eastern Switzerland would not work, he said.

Why then did he insist on a special status for Kashmir, a status which was given by the Nehru government (under severe pressure) in the infamous Article 370 which immediately alienated
Kashmir from the sister states of the Indian Union ? By this Article, the Indian Union had jurisdiction only in the areas of Defence, External Affairs and Communications. In all other respects, Kashmir had autonomy in its domestic affairs, an autonomy which discriminated against the other citizens of Bharat. If Mumbai is not just for Mumbaikers, but for all Indians, so is Kashmir.

All the other states that acceded to the Indian Union, accepted the Indian Constitution.
Kashmir alone had its own Constitution, its own flag, its own national anthem etc.

Once it became clear to the government of India that Sheikh Abdullah seemed to be engaging in secret  negotiations with the U.S. for independence, he was arrested and was not released until the Accord he signed with Indira Gandhi in 1975.

To return to the question: why did he insist on Autonomy at Independence ? Was it personal ambition ? Did he have a political agenda ? Was he a confused man ?

His official biographers and present day admirers believe that he was acting in good faith all along. Neverthless, they are unable to explain the contradiction of why a secular individual who openly admired the Indian Constitution, insisted on special status for Kashmir. Did he not really trust the Indian Constitution despite the professions of loyalty and admiration for the Indian Constitution. Was he  a closet communalist and not a secularist, as he claimed ?

Afterall, the insistence on special status for Kashmir did not bring any great benefits for Kashmir, apart from the generous funds given by the Centre to this State. How did it benefit the Muslim majority of Kashmir.?They have been alienated from the rest of India, chasing an illusion. Extremists and terrorists have overtaken the Kashmir Valley. Jammu and Ladakh remain stable and do not want Autonomy.

And what is this ‘special’ quality of Kashmir ? Are not all the sister states of the Indian Union unique in their customs and traditions ? And yet they are bound together in allegiance to the Indian Constitution.

Does it afterall end up with the fact that the majority population in the Kashmir Valley is Muslim and is this the reality that was at the centre of all of Sheikh Abdullah’s  thoughts? What happens then to his professed secularism ? And what happens to the minorities in the Kashmir Valley : the Sikhs, the Gujjars, the Shia Muslims, the Hindus ?

Did Sheikh Abdullah envisage the eradication of Kashmiriyat, that blend of Hindu-Islamic culture that had always been a way of life in the Kashmir valley?

Unless these questions are answered by the National Conference leaders and the father son duo of  Farooq and  Omar Abdullah, the relevance of Autonomy will remain a false dream, a mirage, a chimera.

(The writer is a Political Scientist who taught at a Canadian university)

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